Saturday, 9 February 2013

Sylvia Plath - some thoughts when reading how she has influenced other women writers

    Over at The Guardian, they have a wonderful collection of various writers talking about how reading Sylvia Plath affected their writing, and in one marvelous case, what knowing her meant. 

           I forget that Sylvia Plath died the year I was born (1963).  I forget how much her work, her poetry and her one novel, The Bell Jar, opened the way for women to write about what was real for them, especially the real dark emotions that lie under the surface: rage, anger, sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, and despair. 

    Her poems and The Bell Jar don't contain only these emotions, they also have moments of pure beauty, and vivid imagery that pulsates with life and blood and desire.  Her poems aren't polite.  They ripped open the facade of being a woman in the 1950's and 1960's, with that same dissatisfaction that Betty Freidan was about to reveal in The Feminine Mystique.  Plath's work  burns with desire for honesty, for the truth, to say what is obvious to her, that polite society and nice women never, ever speak of.  She tore the roof off of her world, opening herself up to all the feelings in her heart and soul, and she blazed a path for everyone who came after her.

Her poetry came to me when I was 18 and had just left home for the first time.  Alone, it seemed, I was ready to face some of the reasons why I left home that young, and her poetry gave me the door to recognize similar feelings in me of anger, of betrayal, of loss, as well as a way to try to describe these in poems.  I didn't know these could be written as poetry.  That's what Sylvia gave me most of all, the realization that everything can be made into a poem, if you can find the clarity and words to show the ideas and feelings in a way that has harmony and art to it, and even beauty.

 And yet she could be funny - I remember laughing out loud reading The Bell Jar, as well as crying, and wincing at her descriptions of the shock therapy while in the institution.  She was sarcastic, and ironic, and I had the feeling reading her, that if we could have met, we might have spoken the same kind of language.  She felt like a kindred spirit, albeit much cleverer, more passionate and far more open than I could ever be.  

She is still an influence on me today, as I strive to be honest in my poems, to write truthfully about what I really feel and why.  I am afraid of her, too, and Anne Sexton, because I admire their poetry so much, and it wasn't enough to save them from their despair, so it seems bleak and naive for me to think that art can save, and yet I do.  No one ever said that being a poet was easy, and a woman poet with children has to balance motherhood with writing.  Both of these women left their children eventually, both giving up to despair and committing suicide.  For a long time I fought being a poet because I did not want to be like them.  And of course, it's only because that darkness runs in me too, that their poetry is both pleasure and dangerous for me. I have had to find my own strength against that darkness, and I write about that too sometimes.  I have often asked myself what is poetry, if it's about something that isn't beautiful?  Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, are some of the poets that laid the way for women to speak the truth as poets, and as women. Most of all, I eventually realized that not all poets - or writers - are suicidal or unbalanced. Despair was something else about which they could write, but it didn't make them poets.  Both their deaths are a tragic loss, and it's not why they are remembered, thankfully.  It's their wonderful, deep, magical, brutal, fiery poetry that matters.

I owe a debt to Sylvia Plath, and reading the reflections of the writers and poets on The Guardian, I find I am not alone.  I am discovering now that I want to go back and reread her again, to see what she has to teach me now.  That's is something I love about art and poetry and literature.  There are levels upon levels of meaning, depending on where you are as a reader or viewer.  It's what makes  a work of art become lasting in a culture,  even when not recognized at first publication.  The work is revealed over time by people coming to it, again and again.  The song or poem or painting reveals itself over time to have brushed some deep level of meaning that ascends that time and place.

 I don't know if Sylvia Plath will still be read 100 years from now, but I hope so.  I think she is an essential part of a young woman's - any woman's -  growth to being able to fully express herself, including all the ways that each woman feels she doesn't fit the culture around her.  I of course don't know if she is timeless, or only for a certain time, though I do know that she is part of my time and my history.

Here is another Guardian Post about Sylvia, just two weeks ago, about an upcoming book about her before she met Ted Hughes -  Mad Girl's Love Song by Andrew Wilson.  There are links in this article to other ones from Ted Hughes sister Olwyn Hughes and the excecutor of Plath's estate , and Plath's  friend Elizabeth Symonds on The Bell Jar. Apparently The Bell Jar has been re-released with a more chick-lit cover, and some are upset.  While the chicklit cover belies what is in the book, I'm happy to see it is still being published. 

Did you, dear Reader, discover Sylvia Plath at some point in your life?  Do you still read her poems?  Did she influence you in some way? 

19 comments:

Jeane said...

I first read The Bell Jar in my teens, and several times after. It's one of the most powerful books I've ever read, so vivid and painful and yes, beautiful too. I went on to read a lot of her poetry, and I'm not usually a big reader of poems. I even have a little book I compiled once, typing out and printing my favorite poems, and quite a few of hers are in there.

I didn't know you write poetry! Have you ever shared them here?

Susan said...

Jeane: No, I haven't shared any here yet. I've always written poetry, even when I tried not to. And I've always read it, though I'm learning how much there is to explore in it now!

Which Sylvia Plath poems did you copy out so much? Ariel was the first book of poems by her I bought, it might have been the first book of poems I bought myself. I'm curious what other poems you put in there too! I did something similar, copying Tennyson (When the bugle Blows), though I didn't do much poetry copying, I marked all my books with tiny pieces of paper for my favourite poems. Thanks for sharing, Jeane! I wish we lived closer, I'd love to look at - share - some of our favourite poems together. :-)

Jeanne said...

I read the Bell Jar one morning when I was 16 from about 5-8 am and still remember the effect. I've loved the savageness of her poems.

JaneGS said...

I'm just now discovering Plath. I've always shied away from her, not sure if I really wanted to handle what she wanted to say. I love her Bronte-inspired poetry, but I'm still circling her warily.

Thanks for a wonderful post--I appreciate your reflections on what she has meant to you as a thoughtful reader and writer yourself.

Susan said...

Jeane: I was 19 I think when I read The Bell Jar. It fits in with being aware that life is not what we thought it would be when we were younger, doesn't it?

That is a good way to put some of her poems, as expressing savageness. That's exactly right. Thanks so much for your thoughts on her, Jeane. I feel like we've had a lovely discussion, I wish it were over tea!

Jane: Thank you so much for commenting on how you are wary of Plath. That is a good way to describe her reputation now, I think. Especially from the discussion Jeane and I were having over her writing! Some of her poems though are haunting, and powerful. I wish she had lived (not just for her family's sake, and her own) because I wonder what she might have matured into as a writer, too.

Susan said...

Jeanne: sorry, I spelled your name wrong when replying to you.

Jeane said...

I've actually been thinking of remaking that poems book; there are some new poems I've found (right now pasted on my wall) that I'd like to put in, and some old ones that no longer appeal to me I'd like to remove. I've been thinking of sharing a few of my favorites on my blog, but not sure if that breaks copyright law, to reproduce someone's poem on a blog?

Anyways, the Plath poems I've included in there are Street Song, Black Rook in Rainy Weather, Battle-Scene, the Eye-Mote, and a few others I don't know the titles of. Lots of e.e. cummings too, and plenty of random poets I never heard of before or after discovering the one poem I like so much.

Susan said...

Jeane: I'm not sure about the copyright either, but I have seen poems on other blogs, and I think if you acknowledge the poet and the book, and it's not for profit, it's ok.

ee cummings! You and I share some taste in poetry :-) His poem 'somewhere I have never travelled' is one of my favourite poems.

I will have to go look up some of those Plath titles, I'm not sure I know them all. It's funny how sometimes a poem can go through your whole life with you, and sometimes a poem is only for certain times of your life, or only once. Kind of like friends and loved ones, I think.

Kathleen said...

It is wonderful to have made such a connection with an author/poet and her work. I've had The Bell Jar on my shelf for years and have never gotten around to reading it. After reading your post I wonder what I have been waiting for.

Susan said...

Kathleen: Have you read her poetry yet? They are somewhat different, her story has humour in it, it's quite funny in places, whereas her poetry has strong emotions in it, but isn't gentle. Just something to think about, if you are a bit afraid of the book. I hope you do try it one day.

Vintage Reading said...

Susan that is a great post. I was born in '63, too, and I didn't discover her poetry until I was about 24. We had the choice of Wordsworth and Plath on our poetry syllabus at college and the tutor opted for Wordsworth although some of us were very keen to study Plath. I wonder if she chose the 'safer' option because, as you say Path is frightening in her genius.

Vintage Reading said...

Susan that is a great post. I was born in '63, too, and I didn't discover her poetry until I was about 24. We had the choice of Wordsworth and Plath on our poetry syllabus at college and the tutor opted for Wordsworth although some of us were very keen to study Plath. I wonder if she chose the 'safer' option because, as you say Path is frightening in her genius.

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